Constitution at 50

Published April 10, 2023

ON this day in 1973, the National Assembly achieved the formidable feat of giving Pakistan a permanent Constitution — the first document to be framed by a house elected directly by the people of this country. Pakistan’s constitutional odyssey up till then had been a haphazard one. From independence until 1956, the country was run under the Government of India Act, 1935, and it was nine years after partition that the country received its first constitution.

However, this document, though holding up the promise of parliamentary rule, was short-lived; the then president Maj-Gen Iskander Mirza would abrogate the document, declare martial law and hand over power to army chief Gen Ayub Khan. The latter would foist his own — and the country’s second — constitution upon Pakistan in 1962, which created a presidential system, and gifted to the country the Basic Democracies. However, this document, too, was put away when Gen Yahya Khan took the reins in 1969.

It is in the aftermath of these constitutional experiments and authoritarian interventions, and amidst the smouldering remains of what was left of Pakistan following the tragedy of 1971, that the quest for a new basic law began.

The challenge before then president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the constituent assembly that remained after the separation of East Pakistan was considerable. The nation was bitterly divided — as it is now — on political lines, riven by economic, social and economic problems, still not having recovered from the trauma of the eastern wing’s loss. But even in these difficult circumstances, the parties in parliament began the torturous yet vital task of framing a new basic law.

The journey towards adopting the 1973 Constitution was not easy. The gulf between the ruling PPP and the opposition alliance was wide, and leaders from both sides regularly censured each other. The adoption of the Constitution came down to the wire; even a few hours before the document was to be adopted, observers were not sure if the task would be achieved, and whether the opposition would end its boycott of parliament. However, dialogue and statesmanship won the day, when Mr Bhutto’s law minister Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the moving spirit behind the 1973 document, told a relieved house that the opposition had ended its boycott. There were celebrations as the nation had seemingly achieved the impossible: consensus on a ‘home-grown’ Constitution amidst toxic polarisation.

The 1973 document gave Pakistan the basic structure it has today: a directly elected parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature rooted in federalism. The Constitution has survived suspension, mutilation and military coups, showing commendable resilience. The most brazen assaults on the document came during the Zia and Musharraf eras of military rule, but thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of Senator Raza Rabbani, the 18th Amendment, 2010, revived the spirit of the original document by ensuring provincial autonomy and undoing the damage done by military strongmen.

Is the 1973 Constitution a perfect document? Not necessarily, but it is equipped with the tools to resolve disputes and address shortcomings, as the 18th Amendment has shown. The only solution lies in respecting the constitutional order and working to implement the lofty goals laid out by the basic law. Tinkering by adventurers — uniformed and civilian — opens the door to ad-hocism, and unleashes forces that threaten the very existence of the federation.

Arguably, the predicament that Pakistan finds itself in today is largely due to abandoning the constitutional framework. Respecting this framework would mean that all institutions act within their constitutional bounds — with the military resisting its saviour complex and yielding to elected authorities; political parties and civilian leaders tolerating each other and finding democratic, constitutional solutions to their disputes, instead of threatening to tear down the system, or rushing off to Rawalpindi for ‘guidance’; and the superior judiciary refraining from any temptation to ‘rewrite’ the Constitution.

As this paper noted in an editorial following the passage of the 1973 Constitution: “a constitution is only as good as the spirit in which the political elites, specially the Establishment, work it”. Those words ring true today as much as they did on April 10, 1973, and Pakistan’s power brokers can learn many a lesson from the constitution-making process of 1973.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2023

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